Why SpaceX’s Successful Falcon Heavy Launch Matters

CAPE CANAVERAL, FL - FEBRUARY 06: The SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket lifts off from launch pad 39A at Kennedy Space Center on February 6, 2018 in Cape Canaveral, Florida. The rocket is the most powerful rocket in the world and is carrying a Tesla Roadster into orbit.
 Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Tuesday afternoon, as many watched the SpaceX live stream of Falcon Heavy blast Elon Musk’s Tesla Roadster into outer space, it was hard not to come away feeling inspired.

During the roughly 10 minutes of action, viewers watched as 27 engines thrust the 230-foot rocket through the Florida skyline and into Earth’s orbit. At the end of the mission, we now have a convertible Tesla Roadster cruising through outer space with the top down, and a “Don’t Panic” sign in place of the entertainment console.

Beyond a larger-than-life Estes rocket putting a billionaire’s $200,000 car into orbit, zigging and zagging Earth and Mars for the next billion years, what’s so special about SpaceX and the Falcon Heavy? (For those curious about the rocket’s name, say it a few times real fast. Clever, right?)

Reusable rockets

SpaceX has already proven that it can launch, land, and then reuse booster rockets on future missions. In fact, the two first-stage boosters used to launch Falcon Heavy on Tuesday were used in previous missions by the smaller Falcon 9 SpaceX rocket. Those same two boosters landed safely, again, after separating from Falcon Heavy.

The core booster, or second-stage rocket, was also supposed to land in the middle of the sea on a SpaceX drone ship. The video feed cut out as the rocket got closer to the ship’s landing pad, and it was later revealed that the core crashed into the ocean, exploding on impact. Still, even if SpaceX only recovered two out of three boosters, that’s pretty impressive. While reclaiming boosters helps eliminate unnecessary debris landing in the ocean, it’s also a step to help lower the cost of each rocket launch. Saving that money brings things like space tourism and further space exploration closer to reality. But before you get too excited, just know we are a long way off from being able to plan a honeymoon trip to the Moon.

Bigger is better

The end goal here isn’t just to make putting satellites into orbit more affordable. Sure, that’s part of what SpaceX—and by extension, Falcon Heavy—will do in the foreseeable future, but the size of the rocket is a crucial piece of this story.

According to SpaceX, the Falcon Heavy is the most powerful rocket in the world—and second place isn’t even close. The Heavy can place a payload of 141,000 pounds into Earth’s orbit, double what the next spacecraft can do. Payload sizes decrease steadily once they’re past Low Earth Orbit (LEO); at that stage, Falcon Heavy could send 7,729 pounds all the way to Pluto. Planet or not, Pluto is 4.67 billion miles away and SpaceX has a ship powerful enough to deliver well over three tons to it.

Another capability the Falcon Heavy boasts is the ability to carry humans on missions to other planets. Specifically, SpaceX wants to carry humans to the Moon and Mars. It’s a scary thought, indeed. But as SpaceX proved today, it’s possible—and something that is very slowly coming into the realm of reality.